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Toxic train derailment leaves looming questions over impacts to health, environment

The rail company has promised to pay for the cleanup but residents’ concerns still largely center around long-term environmental impacts or health concerns.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — The people of East Palestine still want answers – three weeks after a Norfolk Southern train derailed caused an environmental mess in this Ohio town.

The rail company has promised to pay for the cleanup – but residents’ concerns still largely center around what are the potential long-term environmental impacts or their own health concerns.

“Stress, anxiety. No answers still. I am not happy with answers we’ve gotten. Let’s put it that way,” Melissa Boyer told 10 Investigates Friday.

Boyer lives 2,200 feet from the site of the derailment.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report Thursday that revealed that the train received three hot box notifications that a wheeling bearing was heating up prior to the derailment.

Melissa Boyer said she wasn’t home when it happened back on Feb. 3. But her daughters were. They all left and stayed with Melissa’s other daughter in Pennsylvania.

Melissa told me her family returned back to the home she rents two days after a controlled released of chemicals that were on the train.

She now thinks that was a mistake.

She told 10 Investigates that she and her daughter have experienced headaches, tingling lips and that they’re unsure of what blood tests to request from their doctors – who they planned to see again.

Melissa Boyer showed 10 Investigates this document from a contractor who tested the air quality in her home for vinyl chloride.

She told me the readings were relatively normal – but the test was conducted seven days after the derailment by a contractor working on the Norfolk Southern cleanup.

“Norfolk Southern says they are taking care of the problem but where have they been?” Boyer said. “That $1,000 (inconvenience fee) is nothing. Our long-term effects. That’s the scary part of everything.”

That fear of the unknown is clearly present here in East Palestine.

“What can we do to protect ourselves now?” one woman asked during a townhall meeting Thursday night put together by environmental activists.

“What do you use to clean your home?” another woman asked.

Their questions came inside a packed studio space in the heart of East Palestine.

It sounds cliché but there are more questions than answers here.

Environmental scientists at that meeting suggested that the EPA should test for Dioxins – persistent pollutants that can take a long time to break down.

They told the crowd who gathered that they’re caused when vinyl chloride combusts – like the fire that happened following this derailment.

10 Investigates interviews environmental activist Erin Brockovich 

Erin Brockovich says the people of East Palestine should follow their instincts. And if that means questioning what the government or the rail company tells them – so be it.

When asked what she makes of what happened here, she said:

“A lot of confusion. I haven’t seen anything like this in my 30 years. We are kind of watching a live environmental situation unfold before us,” Brockovich told 10 Investigates.

In several interviews conducted with East Palestine residents, 10 Investigates noticed a common theme emerging – one of mistrust and skepticism about what’s going on and long-term questions about impacts to the environment and their health.

“The sad thing is the people of East Palestine didn’t know a thing about vinyl chloride but Norfolk Southern did,” said attorney Mikal Watts.

Watts and Brockovich are playing host to another townhall meeting Friday evening, where Watts said they plan to share with residents additional information about past Norfolk Southern derailments.

Watts also shared that he plans to tell residents that they need to start documenting things. They should get blood and urine tests as well, he said.

A 10 Investigates’ review of federal railroad data found that Norfolk Southern has averaged about 260 accidents per year since 2018.

A separate review of additional railroad data showed that – since 2007 – Norfolk Southern has had derailments in at least 36 Ohio counties.

“This has to stop and this has to change. We are going to have to change practices, deal with

Infrastructure issues, change antiquated policy , change antiquated laws, and change antiquated corporate models,” Brockovich said.

“These communities need to hear the truth. Give it to them straight. Whether it hurts or not they will handle it.”

Brockovich says that feeling of skeptism in this town is natural after an environmental mess like this.

In a statement released Thursday, Norfolk Southern said it has promised to pay for the cleanup and said it will invest in innovation that may help prevent something like this from happening again.

A spokesman did not return an email on follow-up question related to additional questions about heat detector warnings.

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